Kill Your Darlings

Three little words constituting my most hated of writing advice.

It’s not that I disagree–quite the contrary, in fact–but I think the phrase is grossly misunderstood. Or, as it’s been in my personal experience, abused.

We all know what the phrase really means, right? Developing an emotional detachment from one’s work, so that they can better identify and assess flaws (both recognized by the author and discovered by first readers) in order to improve said work. Simple, really, and a crucial skill if you’re serious about your craft.

So who decided it was okay to use it as a defense mechanism?

Recently I attended a roundtable poetry workshop where this little chestnut was flung in my direction. I was relieved that the work I’d offered for critique–part of a linked series of surreal poems with a supermarket theme (because another piece of advice I adhere to is “Write what you know”) that relied heavily on bizarre imagery–was well-received, since the group was largely made up of middle-aged women who wrote nature poems. I learned when I was being subtle and when I was just being vague, which lines resonated better than others, and all that good stuff  these types of functions can teach you.

But when the workshop coordinator suggested I remove an image–one I found particularly powerful and upon which a great deal of the poem’s impact hinged–I  demurred. Politely, of course, but I explained the line’s importance and how it related to the rest of the piece. Her response?

“Kill your darlings.”

It stung, I’ll admit, but I initially chalked it up to frustration that the piece wasn’t working. It wasn’t until later that I realized that those three words are really a condescending, end-of-discussion way of saying, “You can’t disagree with what I’m telling you, and my opinion is final.”

And this hasn’t been the only instance I’ve seen this.

“Kill your darlings” is a philosophy, a principle, not an instruction. If you’re critiquing someone’s work and you disagree on a plot point, description, use of metaphor, whatever, don’t use this phrase. (I’m assuming, naturally, that the author has considered all opinions with an open mind and can reasonably state his case as to why it should stay.) I really don’t see how you can say it without sounding like an asshole.

What I would have said, were I in the coordinator’s shoes, was, “This line may hold significance for you, but it doesn’t work in its current state.”

Maybe the image doesn’t work as written. That’s not to say that with a little fine-tuning, some additional revision, it can’t work somewhere else. Or in another form. That’s for the author to decide (and in my case, I’m sticking to my guns); if he’s serious about what he does, he can kill those darlings and incorporate the suggestions that best serve the work.

Nobody wins with the attitude, Heed my words. Resistance is futile.

So kill your darlings. Slaughter them by the truckload with extreme prejudice. But when approached for advice, let the author decide which ones end up on the chopping block.

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One Response to “Kill Your Darlings”

  1. It is a little odd to hear the phrase used in this situation. One should only “kill their darlings” if they become too attached (to a character, a plotline, what have you) to see the story objectively…at least, that is my interpretation of it. Everything else is just a matter of revision. 😉

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